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Textured and talented, if not transcendental - 72%

autothrall, April 9th, 2012

While the metal public is not hesitant to apply the tag 'progressive metal' to just about anything these days (I've heard it being used to brand sounds from Meshuggah to derivative black or death metal acts), and I'm hardly exempt from the practice myself, I feel that the term was once being used to describe a particular cache of artists who had morphed the traditional prog rock sounds of the 70s and 80s into a harder hitting contrast of ideals. Granted, there has always been a stigma of dweebiness hovering over this field, owing in no small part to the snottier minority of its fans and the subjective assertion of its 'superiority' to other sub-strains of metal, but I feel like a lot of the better groups in this niche have been tragically overlooked through the years, Germans Ivanhoe among them.

The early through mid 90s were not silent years for the genre, what with Dream Theater's sophomore Images and Words arriving to enormous, even mainstream acclaim, and a hundred impersonators deciding to follow suit. Not since Queensr├┐che (1988-1990) had a band in this category made such a huge splash, not even Dream Theater themselves on their debut, so it's only natural that the fires of inspiration would spread so rampant. Ivanhoe were not necessarily also-rans in this category, having formed in the mid 80s and produced a handful of demos before signing to the obscure Wmms imprint for their debut, but I don't think there's any question they bear some subdued similarities to that East Coast US elephant in the room, tempered with a nod or two to Geoff Tate of Queensr├┐che or the synth heavy 80s output of Canadian rock heroes Rush. As a result, Visions and Reality is not exactly an album I'd dub 'original', but their choice to rein in on the technical excess and focus on textured, dynamic songwriting ultimate leads to an enjoyable debut for those with an interest in this particular aesthetic.

The German quintet certainly has a flair for dramatic escalation here, from the beautifully lush intro piece "Visions..." through the grooving, heavier step of the guitars in "Deeper Ground", and this has worked to their strength for going on 20 years now. Certainly the vocals of Andy B. Franck in "Deeper Ground" seem redolent of Geoff Tate's screaming and his lower, ballad range circa "Silent Lucidity", but nonetheless I found myself invested in the mixture of pumping bass lines, jazz and world influenced percussion and the constant shimmering of the synth pads off in the distance. There's a little theatrical cheese to the composition, as with the dorky fusion of that 80s piano break in the bridge, but once Chuck Schuler's burning, minimalist lead arrives and they steer back towards another verse, they exude a sense of well rounded tautness, tangible if submerged intensity and genuine enthusiasm.

The album does grow a little in quality as it proceeds, through the intense middle gait of the track "Left Alone" in which Franck performs with a more palpable desperation, or the almost irritably catchy clean guitars that inaugurate "Into the Realm of Unknown", or the escalating heroism of Markus Britsch's keyboards in the chorus of "Written in Stone". However, I'd be remiss to claim that the music here was quite so distinct and memorable as Dream Theater's sophomore meal ticket or Fates Warning's fluid and thoughtful Parallels. For one, the guitars here are just not as powerful, the synths themselves often flimsy throughout the structure of the cuts, and Franck's vocals can prove a mixed bag, often unrestrained to the point that their siren like quality might have proven a better fit to some heavier power/speed metal album. A few of the more emotionally tepid tunes like the atmospheric "Eternal Light" leave something to be desired, and I found the album lacking in eloquent, catchy solos, despite admiring the restraint.

All in all, though, this was a decent first effort, possible worth checking out if you're into the less frenetic side of Dream Theater, or other German progressives of the 90s like Dreamscape and Mind Odyssey. The lyrics are a bit generic if not insubstantial, but the arrangements are more smooth than shaky; demonstrative of that deep understanding of grafting accessible endowments upon a more labyrinthine backbone which characterizes much of its sub-genre.